Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Kirk Douglas Theatre
Through November 20
Playwright Jon Robin Baitz has always tended to treat his subject matter obliquely and to view it from a slightly skewed vantage point. But here, he’s tackled his subject head-on, becoming downright confrontational. And since his subject is Donald Trump, the result is both volatile and controversial. If Baitz was not already on Trump’s enemies list, he probably will be now.
But this is a work of fiction in which Trump is never mentioned by name. Baitz’s Trump surrogate is called Kurt Seaman (Harry Groener), and the implied pun — Seaman/semen — is a clear reference to Trump’s curious sexual proclivities: He is a said to own an apartment complex called the Seaman Fountain. And the role is clearly intended as a portrait, regardless of the name. The result is probably the most lethal, ruthless and comprehensive satire/indictment of a politician ever penned by an American playwright. And this is not a spoof. Baitz is dead serious, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deploy his rich wit to provide plenty of comedy along with the satiric zingers.
The play’s action is set in the Manhattan Atelier of Anselm of Paris, a prestigious firm specializing in custom-made suits for the rich and famous. Anselm (Brian George) is an elderly Jewish gentleman who’s no longer physically able to do his customary masterly work, and so has hired an assistant, a highly capable Muslim named Amir (Ramiz Monsef), to take on much of it, and eventually assume ownership of the business. Amir is the son of Anselm’s oldest and most loyal friend. Nevertheless, there’s a certain tension between Anselm and Amir. Anselm suffered political persecution before he came to America, which almost cost him his life, and so is resolutely apolitical and determined to go along to get along. Amir has been something of a radical firebrand, and his tendency to sound off about political issues alarms Anselm.
Things get underway when loose-cannon presidential candidate Seaman arrives at the atelier to order a power suit, of the sort Anselm has in the past created for Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. And it must be a rush job, as Seaman needs it for his third presidential debate. Anselm is a slow and careful craftsman, reluctant to accept a rush order, and only agrees to make the vicuña suit for a price of $110,000. Seaman accepts this exorbitant price because he has an almost magical belief that the perfect suit can make him look presidential, despite his incendiary attacks on women, Muslims, immigrants, and minorities in general.
Seaman is not thrilled to discover that Anselm’s right-hand man is a Muslim, and Amir is not thrilled to be working for a sworn enemy of his people. Things are further complicated by the fact that Seaman is accompanied by his daughter Srilanka (Samantha Sloyan), who is also his campaign manager, and growing desperate over the fact that she can’t persuade her father to be more temperate in his speech, and stop alienating whole chunks of the electorate.
Soon Amir is challenging Srilanka about her father’s hate-mongering and vicious invective. And she is receptive to his challenges because she is growing disillusioned about her much-loved father.
Meanwhile, Republican Senator and Party Chairman Kitty Finch-Gibbon (Linda Gehringer) is appalled by Seaman and what he is doing to her party, and has put together a consortium of concerned Republicans who offer to pay Seaman an enormous sum to drop out of the election. But no matter how high her offers, Seaman keeps demanding more, upping his price to five billion dollars, plus a race horse and a Robert Rauschenberg painting. But he has no intention of actually accepting their offer. He regards it as one more attempt to rob his supporters. He is determined to bring down the government, the establishment, and everybody in it.
The climax comes at the third presidential debate, in the course of which Seaman ruthlessly betrays his daughter, Anselm, Amir, Kitty, and, by extension, America itself. The play ends before the election, but the ending is nevertheless apocalyptic, suggesting just how dangerous a Seaman presidency could be.
Because of his family background, Baitz has a first-hand knowledge of the workings of money, power, and influence denied to most playwrights, and he deploys it anatomize Trumpism with precision and passion. His play is not perfect — the ending veers into melodrama — but it’s powerful melodrama, rendered with eloquence.
Director Robert Egan gives the play a polished and potent production, and his ensemble is marvelous. Groener gives an extraordinary performance, one of genuine stature, albeit of an unsavory kind. George finds deep pathos in Anselm, a man determined to stay out of the fray till Seaman goes one step too far. Sloyan captures the conflict of a woman caught between her fondest beliefs and the father she has always loved. Monsef seethes with anger and indignation, yet fears his own outspokenness will harm his elderly parents. And Gehringer gives us a powerful woman who discovers her power is useless against a man who will go to any lengths to serve his own overpowering ego.
Designer Kevin Depinet has created the lavishly handsome set, and Karl Fredrik Lundeberg composed the incidental music which wonderfully amplifies the action.
Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2 & 8 p.m., Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. Running time: Two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.